Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Kona, part II

On Friday (our LAST full day on the island) I had arranged a helicopter flight over the volcano. I've been to the Big Island many times and have not yet seen the lava! I think I only went once BEFORE Kilauea started erupting (around 1983 or 84, when I got to swim at the famous Black Sand Beach at Kalapana, (which was totally covered over in the early eruptions way back in 1986 I think). Anyway, EVERY time I've been to the Big Island since the eruptions started, for one reason or another I have never seen the flowing lava. Jeannie went there with her friend Barb when we lived on Oahu, and they hiked out over the hardened lava to where the fresh stuff was flowing into the ocean. She says they were so close that it hurt (keep in mind that lava is around 2200 degrees F...when you think of a HOT oven being around 400F, well...2200 is beyond our comprehension hot!)

But I digress. I checked in with the park website and lo and behold, my luck was still there. My BAD luck I mean. The lava has shifted it's flow pattern as lava does, and it's not flowing into the ocean right now. It's pretty much all underground except for some flow areas that are weeping out of the lava tubes and creeping down the hill....but no red-hot rivers of lava to be found. RATS!!!! If I wanted to see anything other than miles (and miles, and miles) of hardened lava, I needed to do it from the air. I considered an airplane tour and a helicopter tour. Finally I settled on a helo tour, however it required me to get over to Hilo by 12:15 for a 1pm 50 minute flight. No one else in our group was really interested in doing the helo flight (or spending the $ to do it, though in all honesty it was quite reasonable). But nobody had any problem with us all driving up and over Saddle Road (between Mauna Loa and Mauna Keau volcanos) and down into Hilo. The drive was around 95 miles, and in years past Saddle Road was SO horrible that you weren't allowed to take rental cars on it. However in recent years they have resurfaced most of the bad areas, and totally re-routed the other bad spots. So now the drive took about 2 and a half hours, and was quite scenic too!

The tour company was called "Blue Hawaiian Helicopters" and they are the only company who flies helo's on ALL the islands. I got a real good price booking online too! (plus you get a free T shirt AND a complimentary "Visions of Hawaii" dvd, which is shot in full HD with footage from their tours on all the islands....of a BEST OF HAWAII dvd). I was pretty excited about the trip as I've never been on a helicopter before, AND I will FINALLY see some lava!!!!

 This is my helicopter! (well, not actually mine...but I did borrow it for almost an hour). I was in the right rear seat, and there were 4 other passengers. Each person gets a set of  Bose noise canceling headphones tied into the intercom system. Our pilot (Zack) really narrates the tour very well, and fills in the non-scenic flight time with history and such about the island. Soon after takeoff we were already over the east rift zone which is where the current eruption (for the last 25 years) is coming from. It's all part of Kilauea volcano, which is actually part of Mauna Loa I believe. Every volcano has many 'vents' (places lava COULD come out) and the eruption that has been going for many many years now is from the Pu'u O vent (pronounced Pooo-oooo-OH).

  The Pu'u O vent. 

It's a decent size volcano cone, and the HOT spot of the moment is obvious. Thru the escaping steam and gas (a lot of sulpher dioxide which I'm told when mixed with seawater creates an airborne sulfuric acid,  and is VERY BAD for those in it's path who need to breath). If you blow up this picture (click on it) you can see a bunch of the scientific equipment on the lip just about in the middle of the picture.
 Closeup of the vent as we fly right over the top

If you click on this picture and blow it up more, you can see a red spot thru the steam in the lower left area...this is the boiling lava caldera of the Pu'u O vent (at this exact moment...Zack says things change here fast...he flies over it many times a day and it can change from trip to trip). There were moments in the flight when suddenly the gas/steam would blow away and all of a sudden you see clear as day the huge pool of red molten lava. But before I could snap a picture (which was only do'able when MY side of the helo was facing the vent), it would shift back and cover it up again. I snapped this shot just as it was being 're-covered' from a clear view. Suffice to say, it was AWESOME (you'll just have to trust me). And it's at moments like that (when I'm staring down into a red-hot pool of molten lava) that I ponder what noise I would make if the helicopter broke.

Anyway....after many swoops over the vent for both sides of the helo, Zack then took us over the 'skylights', which are holes in the top of a lava if you will. The lava tubes are how the lava travels underground, and the island is FULL of them. I've walked inside a BIG one a few years back, it's quite famous. It's called the "Thurston Lava Tube". If you are ever on the BI, I"d recommend it as part of your Volcano's Natnional Park tour. Just bring a flashlight...funny how dark it can be inside a BLACK tunnel.

 A skylight. You can clearly see the gas escaping. It's like looking into a portal of Hell (my guess as to what that would look like). But it's VERY COOL (oops...I mean HOT! VERY VERY VERY HOT!)

After many passes over two different skylights in the area, he then took us to the ONLY house remaining of all the hundreds of homes that USED to be in the big subdivision called Royal Gardens (which was totally wiped out during the same flows that covered the black sand beach). The man still lives there in his house, and he's quite famous. The locals call him "Lava Jack". As the HUGE lava flow was heading down the mountain many years back burning home after home into vapors and covering the beautiful jungle with lava, it suddenly parted and went around a small blob of land like some kind of miracle. None of the homes in the entire area were insured (as you can't get insurance if you're in a high-risk lava zone, which is ALL of the southern Big Island) so it was a total loss for everybody concerned. It's hard to comprehend losing EVERYTHING you own AND all your money.  
The blob of untouched land. Lava Jack's house is the small orange roof in the upper third of the blob. All the other homes in the entire subdivision were burned. You can see the light gray is the older lava, and there have been numerous recent flows all around it  including right at the very top of the blob (all the dark black parts). Zack says Jack's in danger every minute of every day, as the black stuff is all very recent and still slowly moving.

 A different view of the untouched land looking straight uphill.  Here you can really see the magical parting of the lava, where it separated and then re-joined at the bottom. Apparently Lava Jack moved to this plot of land when he was 22 years old (a LONG time ago) because he wanted to 'get away from everybody'. Then the roads opened up and houses started sprouting up all over the place, and before he knew it he had hundreds of neighbors. But not now...he is truly 'away from everybody' (be careful what you wish for!) and if his house remains untouched, he will be away from everybody (except the helo's and tourist's oogling his property) for the rest of his life! He had a trail over the lava to the nearest town up until a few months ago when one of the recent flows covered  it. Zack said sometimes you would see him on his dirt-bike cruising to/from his property. You see, Jack is world famous. He us is one of the VERY few people with a permit to hike around in the area. The state allows it because he must be able to get to/from his home. For anybody else to go hiking around in this area of active lava flows is an $18,000 fine and up to a year in prison. IF you live. I'm betting he's no dummy and has learned a LOT of where he can and can't hike. He could very easily break-thru and fall into a lava tube. Even if it wasn't active, he could be hurt and there would be nobody to rescue him. Now that his 'short' trail has been covered, he has a 7 mile hike to get supplies (and a 7 mile hike BACK). There's no water or electricity at his house, and likely won't be for the rest of his life. He opens up his house as a B&B every now and then, and people can fly in via helicopter. Zack says he takes them out on walking tours of the area (I guess he can get away with that with his permit). GO jack!! You are my hero!

After we leave Jacks area we fly down to the coast (not very far) where the lava USED to flow into the ocean. As we start flying back towards Hilo along the coast,  we pass a portion of the Royal Gardens subdivision where people have finally been allowed to rebuild. However you are rebuilding on TOP of the lava flow, and will still have NO insurance, and there also will never (in their lifetimes) be power or water. The hardy residents have bulldozed simple roads on top of the lava and someone must have come out and surveyed out the land plots and away they built. Zack said that when your home is taken by the volcano, YOU are still liable to pay the property taxes on YOUR property, even though it's buried under lava. And you now have two choices: pay the property tax on your land (that in some cases will not be habitable in your lifetime) or NOT pay,  and then your plot of land is turned back over to the state. These people apparently kept paying their taxes and even though it took about 20 years or so, were FINALLY were allowed to rebuild.

Can you imagine living on top of the lava with no power, water, or sewers for the REST of your life? These are some tough cookies! (also know that this area is a good drive away from any decent town with shopping available).

After that we headed up the coast and finally back over Hilo, and the last views we saw were some nice waterfalls and pools on a river that runs right thru Hilo. It was pretty but I didn't get any great shots post-worthy. I took a LOT of pics during the tour, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. And after, it turns out they do an HD recording of the ENTIRE FLIGHT. There are 3 cameras underneath the helo, and one inside looking back at us passengers! It includes all the pilots narrations and any questions we asked (we each had a microphone/switch in our lap, and anytime we wanted to talk we waited for a quiet moment and pushed the switch and talked....the entire complement is on the intercom). And for the paltry sum of $24 I bought a copy of the tour! Of course we watched it back at the timeshare and I didn't really even need to narrate much as Zack was doing that the entire time. The only downside was the audio portion of the intercom was rather crackly over-driven...but other than that they all got to go on the tour with me. The only downside was that of the 4 cameras, the pilot has to switch which camera is actually recording. Usually he did a good job and as he was talking about something he'd switch the system to that camera (and occasionally to the view of us as we were asking questions). But as we flew along this entire section of the rebuilt houses he forgot to switch the view, so the camera was looking straight ahead as the flew along the coast.

 After the tour. I took this shot...and if you blow it up, you can see Zack waving to me from the pilots seat (same side as a car). Also of note (and I didn't know this until later), if you look WAY BACK to the left and behind the chopper, Jeannie, John and Donna were parked waiting for me to arrive. Jeannie is standing out waving at me to the passenger side of the silver car, and Donna took a picture of me taking THIS picture while Jeannie waved. I had NO IDEA they were there, and we all laughed when I zoomed in on MY picture back at the timeshare and could see them!

 After the tour we had lunch at a local cafe, and then proceeded back up Saddle Road. Hilo was totally buried in clouds as is typical of the east side of the island, but as we climb up into the saddle area (between the 2 GINORMOUS volcanoes) we drive right into the sun. Both Mauna Loa and Mauna Keau are shield volcanoes, meaning their cones are a very mild climb angle and they are spread out over an incredible amount of land. Mauna Loa is technically the highest mountain on the planet, higher than Mt Everest. The seafloor around the Big Island is at 18,000 feet. The hot-spot in the earth's crust that created the islands spewed lava from the bottom and created island after island, starting with Kauai (the farthest north island) and ending with the Big Island. The summit of both Mauna Loa and Mauna Keau are both over 13,000 feet...I think ML is around 13,700 and MK is just about 25 or so feet shorter. Add that to the 18,000 feet that they rise off the seafloor and they are both over 31,000 feet tall.

 This is Mauna Loa rising up above Saddle road. Behind us is Mauna Keau. You can see how slight the climb angle is of this MASSIVE mountain of lava. And you get a small sense of how HUGE this island is, that these two gigantic volcano's pretty much made up most of the island. The climb is so gentle as you descend thru the clouds that you have no idea how much mountain is above you (as you almost NEVER see the summits from below the perpetual cloud layer). We are probably at about 8000 feet where this photo was taken.
 And this is Mauna Keau. 

Notice that it is shaped very differently from it's big sister though. MK is world-famous for the observatories on it's summit. Our last trip to the island my brother in law John and I took a stargazing tour where they picked us up in Kona and drove us to the tippy-top for sunset. We got to stand on an overlook and wave our arms, casting the largest shadows we will most likely ever cast. You could clearly see your HUGE arm waving on top of the clouds miles and miles away, stretching into forever. As the sun set it got cold quite quickly, and we all jumped into the van and he drove us down to about 9000 feet (just above the clouds) where he setup an amazing 9" reflecting telescope, and then proceeded to amaze us with the stellar sights (and hot chocolate and snacks too). If you are ever in the Big Island I'd highly recommend this was fabulous! After the tour he drops everybody off at their respective pick-up-points (ours was in Kona, just a short drive from the timeshare). If you click on this picture, you might be able to see a tiny bit of the road as it crosses just to the right of the middle of the a small depression with the highest spot to it's left. You can't quite see the multiple observatories from this angle, but there are times as you drive the Saddle Road you can see sunlight glinting off the shiny HUGE domes. Mauna Keau is reputed to be one of the best stargazing spots in the world, as it's above something like 95% of the moisture and such that is in the air, and also as the Big Island has very strict 'light' rules (as in: no upward emanating light is allowed...all streetlights must have hoods on them, stuff like that). So there is almost NO light pollution up there.

I don't have any further pictures worthy of posting from this trip. We were flying out the next morning (Saturday) and this was pretty much the final hurrah. As always I'll surely miss Kona and the Big Island. This trip was quite relaxing as we didn't spend TOO much time behind the windshield, or running ourselves ragged doing thing after thing. Mostly we just enjoyed being in Hawaii again, wearing shorts, T-shirts and flip flops all the time. And eating some tasty foods and lots of tasty beers. All in all, not a bad vacation. John was a real trooper with his newly broken arm, and we were very glad he was able to come after all. I know he was quite sad that it's actually QUITE hard to do dollar-bill origami with only one hand (one of our past-times we enjoy when sitting around drinking beer, eating poke and other snacks and just chilling at the timeshare on the lani). I however managed to mostly decode the very difficult to understand instructions and made a PAIR of flip-flops (using 1 dollar bills). John bought the book of instructions years ago on our first trip here, and he brings it each time. I also made some kind of a 'fat star' thing. Years back I made a Hawaiian shirt, a gecko and a turtle. Jeannie keeps them all in her secretary on display, reminding us of the fun times we had together.

OK...this got long (imagine THAT!)...hope everybody has their Christmas shopping done and can sit back and ENJOY the holiday season!

Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas in Hawaiian) to you all!


  1. BRILLIANT! Thanks for the wonderful virtual trip to Hawaii! *sigh*. It was lovely :)

  2. Once again, great stories and pictures Matt! Enjoyed the last one too, but just didn't get around to commenting. I may need to go to Hawaii after all, after reading these posts!

    It's supposed to be only around 20F in the morning when I go to work tomorrow--yikes! And it has been snowing a little, but don't expect much to stick.

    Janann, I am going to look for those interviews next gloomy afternoon off; they sound really interesting!

    I hope that they exonerate AC, really I do.

    I've been going to a new exercise class--well, 2 new ones for me, one is yoga, but the other is TRX--you know the one with the ropes? I can barely brush my teeth, my triceps are so sore!!! Bought a bike trainer too, to try to avoid my usual winter doldrums and slide out of condition. Hope it isn't too boring!


  3. You have the greatest vacations, Matt! And you greet each one with such enthusiasm! Thx for sharing with us. I haven't been to Hawaii in more than 20 years - your photos make me wonder why I haven't gone back!

    I finally got the news that I'm part of the new team, so I'll be writing again in 2012, this time for the super team of cycling! Should be fun!! Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be on a team with Jens or Fabian!

  4. Rae, so sorry it's SO very cold...brrrrr! It's at least hovering around 40 here in the mornings, which is COLD ENOUGH! (I am such a wuss).

    Cathy, that's GREAT NEWS that you are part of the new super-team (Radio-Leopard, Leopard-Shack?) How utterly cool that NOW you ALSO get to work w/ Jens, and Fabian, and Andy n Frank! Livin' the dream, yes you are! Just make sure to take us along on your coat-tails!

  5. OK, I just looked at all of this pics and read your stories again - LOVE these Matt!

    WONDERFUL news Cathy! How amazing is that???? Jens, Schlecks, Horner, Fabian, Kloden - did I say JENS - all on the same team! YOUR team!!! Can't wait to hear about it.

    In the final throes of Christmas prep around here! In the homestretch :)Spent this weekend with my family making many, many, many dozens of Christmas cookies - feeling a bit sick. Have to test them all out you know;)

    Just in case I don't have time to get back here before the big day.....
    I wish you all the most blessed, peaceful Christmas!